After having proposed the forty-days’ fast of Jesus in the desert to the meditation of the faithful during the first four weeks of Lent, the holy Church gives the two weeks which still remain before Easter to the commemoration of the Passion. She would not have her children come to that great day of the immolation of the Lamb, without having prepared for it by compassionating with Him in the sufferings He endured in their stead.
The most ancient sacramentaries and antiphonaries of the several Churches attest, by the prayers, the lessons, and the whole liturgy of these two weeks, that the Passion of our Lord is now the one sole thought of the Christian world. During Passion-week, a saint’s feast, if it occur, will be kept; but Passion Sunday admits no feast, however solemn it may be; and even on those which are kept during the days intervening between Passion and Palm Sunday, there is always made a commemoration of the Passion, and the holy images are not allowed to be uncovered.
We cannot give any historical details upon the first of these two weeks; its ceremonies and rites have always been the same as those of the four preceding ones. [It would be out of place to enter here on a discussion with regard to the name Mediana under which title we find Passion Sunday mentioned both in ancient liturgies and in Canon Law.] We, therefore, refer the reader to the following chapter, in which we treat of the mysteries peculiar to Passiontide. The second week, on the contrary, furnishes us with abundant historical details; for there is no portion of the liturgical year which has interested the Christian world so much as this, or which has given rise to such fervent manifestations of piety.
This week was held in great veneration even as early as the third century, as we learn from St. Denis, bishop of Alexandria, who lived at that time [Epist. ad Basilidem, Canon i]. In the following century, we find St. John Chrysostom, calling it the great week [Hom. xxx in Genes.]:- ‘Not,’ says the holy doctor, ‘that it has more days in it than other weeks, or that its days are made up of more hours than other days; but we call it great, because of the great mysteries which are then celebrated.’ We find it called also by other names: the painful week (hebdomada poenosa), on account of the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the fatigue required from us in celebrating them; the week of indulgence, because sinners are then received to penance; and, lastly, Holy Week, in allusion to the holiness of the mysteries which are commemorated during these seven days. This last name is the one under which it most generally goes with us; and the very days themselves are, in many countries, called by the same name, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday.
The severity of the lenten fast is increased during these its last days; the whole energy of the spirit of penance is now brought out. Even with us, the dispensation which allows the use of eggs ceases towards the middle of this week. The eastern Churches, faithful to their ancient traditions, have kept up a most rigorous abstinence ever since the Monday of Quinquagesima week. During the whole of this long period, which they call Xerophagia, they have been allowed nothing but dry food. In the early ages, fasting during Holy Week was carried to the utmost limits that human nature could endure. We learn from St. Epiphanius [Expositio fidei, ix Haeres. xxii.], that there were some of the Christians who observed a strict fast from Monday morning to cock-crow of Easter Sunday. Of course it must have been very few of the faithful who could go so far as this. Many passed two, three, and even four consecutive days, without tasting any food; but the general practice was to fast from Maundy Thursday evening to Easter morning. Many Christians in the east, and in Russia, observe this fast even in these times. Would that such severe penance were always accompanied by a firm faith and union with the Church, out of which the merit of such penitential works is of no avail for salvation!
Another of the ancient practices of Holy Week were the long hours spent, during the night, in the churches. On Maundy Thursday, after having celebrated the divine mysteries in remembrance of the Last Supper, the faithful continued a long time in prayer [St. John Chrysostom, Hom. xxx in Genes.]. The night between Friday and Saturday was spent in almost uninterrupted vigil, in honour of our Lord’s burial [St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. xviii.]. But the longest of all these vigils was that of Saturday, which was kept up till Easter Sunday morning. The whole congregation joined in it: they assisted at the final preparation of the catechumens, as also at the administration of Baptism; nor did they leave the church until after the celebration of the holy Sacrifice, which was not over till sunrise [Const. Apost. lib. 1. cap. xviii.].
Cessation from servile work was, for a long time, an obligation during Holy Week. The civil law united with that of the Church in order to bring about this solemn rest from toil and business, which so eloquently expresses the state of mourning of the Christian world. The thought of the sufferings and death of Jesus was the one pervading thought: the Divine Offices and prayer were the sole occupation of the people: and, indeed, all the strength of the body was needed for the support of the austerities of fasting and abstinence. We can readily understand what an impression was made upon men’s minds, during the whole of the rest of the year, by this universal suspension of the ordinary routine of life. Moreover, when we call to mind how, for five full weeks, the severity of Lent had waged war on the sensual appetites, we can imagine the simple and honest joy wherewith was welcomed the feast of Easter, which brought both the regeneration of the soul, and respite to the body.
In the preceding volume, we mentioned the laws of the Theodosian Code, which forbade all law business during the forty days preceding Easter. This law of Gratian and Theodosius, which was published in 380, was extended by Theodosius in 389; this new decree forbade all pleadings during the seven days before, and the seven days after, Easter. We meet with several allusions to this then recent law, in the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, and in the sermons of St. Augustine. In virtue of this decree, each of these fifteen days was considered, as far as the courts of law were concerned, as a Sunday.
But Christian princes were not satisfied with the mere suspension of human justice during these days, which are so emphatically days of mercy: they would, moreover, pay homage, by an external act, to the fatherly goodness of God, who has deigned to pardon a guilty world, through the merits of the death of His Son. The Church was on the point of giving reconciliation to repentant sinners, who had broken the chains of sin whereby they were held captives; Christian princes were ambitious to imitate this their mother, and they ordered that prisoners should be loosened from their chains, that the prisons should be thrown open, and that freedom should be restored to those who had fallen under the sentence of human tribunals. The only exception made was that of criminals whose freedom would have exposed their families or society to great danger. The name of Theodosius stands prominent in these acts of mercy. We are told by St John Chrysostom [Homil. in magn. Hebdom. Homil. xxx. in Genes. Homil. vi ad popul. Antioch.] that this emperor sent letters of pardon to the several cities, ordering the release of prisoners, and granting life to those that had been condemned to death, and all this in order to sanctify the days preceding the Easter feast. The last emperors made a law of this custom, as we find in one of St. Leo’s sermons, where he thus speaks of their clemency: ‘The Roman emperors have long observed this holy practice. In honour of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, they humbly withhold the exercise of their sovereign justice, and, laying aside the severity of their laws, they grant pardon to a great number of criminals. Their intention in this is to imitate the divine goodness by their own exercise of clemency during these days, when the world owes its salvation to the divine mercy. Let, then, the Christian people imitate their princes, and let the example of kings induce subjects to forgive each other their private wrongs; for, surely it is absurd that private laws should be less unrelenting than those which are public. Let trespasses be forgiven, let bonds be taken off, let offences be forgotten, let revenge be stifled; that thus the sacred feast may, by both divine and human favours, find us all happy and innocent.’ [Sermon xl. de Quadragesima, ii].
This Christian amnesty was not confined to the Theodosian Code; we find traces of it in the laws of several of our western countries. We may mention France as an example. Under the first race of its kings, St. Eligius bishop of Noyon, in a sermon for Maundy Thursday, thus expresses himself: ‘On this day, when the Church grants indulgence to penitents and absolution to sinners, magistrates, also, relent in their severity and grant pardon to the guilty. Throughout the whole world prisons are thrown open; princes show clemency to criminals; masters forgive their slaves.’ [Sermon x]. Under the second race, we learn from the Capitularia of Charlemagne, that bishops had a right to exact from the judges, for the love of Jesus Christ (as it is expressed), that prisoners should be set free on the days preceding Easter [We learn from the same capitularia, that this privilege was also extended to Christmas and Pentecost]; and should the magistrates refuse to obey, the bishops could refuse them admission into the church [Capitular. lib. vi.]. And lastly, under the third race, we find Charles VI, after quelling the rebellion at Rouen, giving orders, later on, that the prisoners should be set at liberty, because it was Painful Week, and very near to the Easter feast [Joan Juvénal des Ursins, year 1382].
A last vestige of this merciful legislation was a custom observed by the parliament of Paris. The ancient Christian practice of suspending its sessions during the whole of Lent, had long been abolished: it was not till the Wednesday of Holy Week that the house was closed, which it continued to be from that day until after Low Sunday. On the Tuesday of Holy Week, which was the last day granted for audiences, the parliament repaired to the palace prisons, and there one of the grand presidents, generally the last installed, held a session of the house. The prisoners were questioned; but, without any formal judgment, all those whose case seemed favourable, or who were not guilty of some capital offence, were set at liberty.
The revolutions of the last eighty years have produced in every country in Europe the secularization of society, that is to say, the effacing from our national customs and legislation of everything which had been introduced by the supernatural element of Christianity. The favourite theory of the last half century or more, has been that all men are equal. The people of the ages of faith had something far more convincing than theory, of the sacredness of their rights. At the approach of those solemn anniversaries which so forcibly remind us of the justice and mercy of God, they beheld princes abdicating, as it were, their sceptre, leaving in God’s hands the punishment of the guilty, and assisting at the holy Table of Paschal Communion side by side with those very men, whom, a few days before, they had been keeping chained in prison for the good of society. There was one thought, which, during these days, was strongly brought before all nations: it was the thought of God, in whose eyes all men are sinners; of God, from whom alone proceed justice and pardon. It was in consequence of this deep Christian feeling, that we find so many diplomas and charts of the ages of faith speaking of the days of Holy Week as being the reign of Christ: such an event, they say, happened on such a day, ‘under the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ:’ regnante Domino nostro Jesu Christo.
When these days of holy and Christian equality were over, did subjects refuse submission to their sovereigns? Did they abuse the humility of their princes, and take occasion for drawing up what modern times call the rights of man? No: that same thought which had inspired human justice to humble itself before the cross of Jesus, taught the people their duty of obeying the powers established by God. The exercise of power, and submission to that power, both had God for their motive. They who wielded the sceptre might be of various dynasties: the respect for authority was ever the same. Now-a-days, the liturgy has none of her ancient influence on society; religion has been driven from the world at large, and her only life and power is now with the consciences of individuals; and as to political institutions, they are but the expression of human pride, seeking to command, or refusing to obey.
And yet the fourth century, which, in virtue of the Christian spirit, produced the laws we have been alluding to, was still rife with the pagan element. How comes it that we, who live in the full light of Christianity, can give the name of progress to a system which tends to separate society from every thing that is supernatural? Men may talk as they please, there is but one way to secure order, peace, morality, and security to the world; and that is God’s way, the way of faith, of living in accordance with the teachings and the spirit of faith. All other systems can, at best, but flatter those human passions, which are so strongly at variance with the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we are now celebrating.
We must mention another law made by the Christian emperors in reference to Holy Week. If the spirit of charity, and a desire to imitate divine mercy, led them to decree the liberation of prisoners; it was but acting consistently with these principles, that, during these days when our Saviour shed His Blood for the emancipation of the human race, they should interest themselves in what regards slaves. Slavery, a consequence of sin, and the fundamental institution of the pagan world, had received its death-blow by the preaching of the Gospel; but its gradual abolition was left to individuals, and to their practical exercise of the principle of Christian fraternity. As our Lord and His apostles had not exacted the immediate abolition of slavery, so, in like manner, the Christian emperors limited themselves to passing such laws as would give encouragement to its gradual abolition. We have an example of this in the Justinian Code, where this prince, after having forbidden all law-proceedings during Holy Week and the week following, lays down the following exception: ‘It shall, nevertheless, be permitted to give slaves their liberty; in such manner, that the legal acts necessary for their emancipation shall not be counted as contravening this present enactment.’ [Cod. lib. iii. tit. xii. de feriis. Leg. 8.]. This charitable law of Justinian was but applying to the fifteen days of Easter the decree passed by Constantine, which forbade all legal proceedings on the Sundays throughout the year, excepting only such acts as had for their object the emancipation of slaves.
But long before the peace given her by Constantine, the Church had made provision for slaves, during these days when the mysteries of the world’s redemption were accomplished. Christian masters were obliged to grant them total rest from labour during this holy fortnight. Such is the law laid down in the apostolic constitutions, which were compiled previously to the fourth century. ‘During the great week preceding the day of Easter, and during the week that follows, slaves rest from labour, inasmuch as the first is the week of our Lord’s Passion, and the second is that of His Resurrection; and the slaves require to be instructed upon these mysteries.’ [Constit. Apost. lib. viii. cap. xxxiii].
Another characteristic of the two weeks, upon which we are now entering, is that of giving more abundant alms, and of greater fervour in the exercise of works of mercy. St. John Chrysostom assures us that such was the practice of his times; he passes an encomium on the faithful, many of whom redoubled, at this period, their charities to the poor, which they did out of this motive: that they might, in some slight measure, imitate the divine generosity, which is now so unreservedly pouring out its graces on sinners.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)